This blog was written by Liesbeth Roolvink and originally published on the Sightsavers website in October 2022.
The world is facing an education crisis and its impact will be devastating on the futures of children and young people worldwide, especially the most marginalised.
This crisis is not new but is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. An estimated 244 million children are currently out of school and many who are in school are not learning. In fact, 70 per cent of 10 year olds in low and middle income countries cannot understand simple written text.
That’s why the United Nations held the Transforming Education Summit last month. This was a unique opportunity to bring education to the top of the global agenda and affirm commitments to transforming education systems. In his opening remarks, the UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres stated that: “instead of being the great enabler, education is becoming a great divider. Education transformation is needed for an inclusive, just and peaceful world.”
To mobilise change at the summit, Sightsavers and partners launched the #DoYourHomework campaign to demand that ministers take urgent action to protect the rights of children with disabilities to a quality and inclusive education. We called on them to do their homework across six subject areas: sociology, economics, politics, computing, maths and design. Overall, we saw some promising outcomes, but there’s still a way to go before their homework receives top marks.
Sightsavers is committed to doing our own homework to help transform education systems. We acknowledge that transforming education is a collective effort and we’re dedicated to actively contributing to the global movement to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4, with a specific focus on girls and children with disabilities.
Our work is guided by the principle to ‘leave no one behind’, as articulated in our inclusive education strategy, and we’re firmly committed to supporting governments in low and middle income countries in their efforts to embed disability inclusion into their national education plans. We support countries by providing the necessary technical assistance so they can implement these plans successfully. By doing our own homework, we’re helping to build inclusive education systems to get children with disabilities back into the school system, as well as supporting those already in the system so they can thrive. Here’s what we’re doing.
We set global leaders homework to include children with disabilities in mainstream education and collect data that includes everyone. In all our programmes we invest in promoting disability rights and gender equality. We work with communities to address stigma and discrimination. Our early learning centres in Malawi teach all children together so that children with disabilities can learn alongside their peers. We promote the development of systems to collect accurate, inclusive data through our Inclusive Data Charter work in Cameroon.
We asked leaders to invest in inclusive training, so that teachers can respond to diverse learning needs and develop flexible curriculums for all children. In Senegal and Nigeria, we’re training teachers to support children with disabilities in their classrooms and in Uganda and Pakistan, we support the government to develop inclusive education modules for their teacher training. In Zambia, we work with the Ministry of Education to improve educational opportunities for children and young people with disabilities, from pre-school through to secondary and tertiary education, as well as helping them transition from education to employment. It particularly focuses on empowering young women and girls, who experience high levels of discrimination and exclusion.
We need leaders to implement policies, plans and budgets to include and support children with disabilities. Sightsavers regularly calls on governments to fund education efficiently and equitably. At the Transforming Education Summit, we launched a joint call to action with three concrete asks for governments to make progress towards disability-inclusive education. In Sierra Leone, we’ve supported the Ministry of Education to develop its new national radical inclusion policy.
We need leaders to tackle the digital divide and ensure digital learning and other education technologies are accessible for all. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools were closed, we supported teachers, parents and pupils to learn remotely with accessible technologies. In Bangladesh we support the ‘safe return to school’ campaign with guidelines to support the specific needs of children with disabilities upon their return to school.
We need leaders to allocate sustainable financing for inclusive education so that all children with disabilities can learn. We have recently completed a costing study in Cameroon to inform the budgeting process to bring tested inclusive education interventions to scale and we supported the Ministries of Education in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the formulation of their new education sector plans. In Mali and Pakistan, we are supporting the development of accessible assessment tools for learners with sensory impairments.
Leaders must involve people with disabilities in all stages of inclusive education design and make sure their voices are heard . Through our work as part of Inclusive Futures, we work with organisations of people with disabilities (OPDs) to ensure that they are at the centre of the planning, design and delivery stages of our projects. In Nigeria, our innovative Support Mainstreaming Inclusion so all Learn Equally (SMILE) project is driven by a steering committee made up of OPD members and government partners from federal, state and local level. They work together to promote inclusion in mainstream schools by developing and implementing innovative approaches that remove barriers for learners with disabilities.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated in his vision statement at the end of the summit: “We must push forward together, with a focus on tangible actions where it matters most: on the ground, in the classroom and in the experience of teachers and learners alike.”
This is what Sightsavers is fully committed to; it’s why we share our evidence-informed expertise in disability-inclusive education globally, nationally and at the local level to support governments developing inclusive education systems where no child is left behind and all learners thrive. We will continue to do this through our partnerships with governments, organisations of people with disabilities and through the empowerment of learners, teachers, school leadership and the community at large. Together, we can make education transformation a reality.